openJustice: Opinion

The coronavirus crisis: revealing an ugly truth about the UK and human rights

The UK is not protecting the rights of its marginalised people – and matters are worse in the wake of coronavirus. But civil society is providing hope.

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Charlotte Threipland Oscar Rickett
26 August 2020, 10.01am
During this crisis, can the UK government be trusted to put people’s needs over financial interests?
Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed to many what was already obvious to plenty: that after forty years of privatisation and deregulation and after 10 years of austerity, the United Kingdom is a country in which financial interests too often override those of our most vulnerable citizens.

We are in a time of upheaval, in which nothing is certain. Britain is leaving the European Union and over the next five years the Conservative Party will likely succeed in its intention to repeal the Human Rights Act. In autocratic fervour, it is also planning to ‘reform’ (read: restrict) a citizen’s ability to challenge the lawfulness of its own decisions.

This should concern us all - in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, human rights and the rule of law are more important than ever. Amidst the new pressures created by this crisis, the rights of minorities are easily left behind.

Meanwhile, across the globe, some authoritarian governments are using the virus as a cover for cracking down on the freedoms of their citizens and stripping away state support.

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Crises provide those with power the opportunity to do such things, and a natural response to this can be a tacit acceptance that extreme measures are necessary in extraordinary times. Human rights legislation was meant to guard against this, to provide a robust defence against a slide into autocracy.

This week openJustice is launching a new series – The Unlawful State: Stories from a Pandemic – in which we investigate and report on the stories of people whose voices we do not normally hear but whose rights have been undermined in the wake of the pandemic.

In our previous series, The Unlawful State, we discovered that even before the coronavirus crisis, the UK government frequently engages in unlawful activity, failing again and again to uphold the picture of a civilised society that is painted in legislation. In the exercise of power and the pursuit of profit, the law is trampled on.

“The time to buy property is when there’s blood in the streets”, Baron Rothschild

“The time to buy property is when there’s blood in the streets”, Baron Rothschild said in the 18th century. Today’s powerbrokers and profiteers often seem to follow this maxim when it comes to property and much more besides, with the carnage wrought by the pandemic creating conditions ripe for the exploitation of the vulnerable and the abandonment of the law.

As part of the first material we are publishing in this series, openJustice spoke to an asylum-seeking woman in London who gave birth during the pandemic. Facing layer upon layer of vulnerabilities and disadvantage, including substandard accommodation and mental health problems – she experienced a stark lack of care prior to and following the birth of her child.

Her story is only too familiar to many other women around the world, who have been denied the minimum standard of care set out by the World Health Organization for childbirth as a result of sometimes unnecessary measures introduced in response to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, the Coronavirus Act 2020, rushed through Parliament in May, gives the UK government unprecedented emergency powers that have an extraordinary impact on democratic norms and civil liberties, leading human rights charity Liberty to call for the Act to be repealed. The Act allows, among other things, for the cancellation or postponement of elections and gives government powers to ban protests, demonstrations or indeed any gatherings at “any place”.

This piece of legislation allows the government to more easily detain (or ‘section’) people on mental health grounds and medicate people against their will. Black people are four times more likely to be detained under measures contained in the Mental Health Act and 61 percent of refugees will experience a mental health crisis or breakdown. So, there are no prizes for guessing which communities are most likely to be affected by these measures.

The act relaxes standards in social care – essentially suspending the Care Act 2014 – which, according to Disability Rights UK, is already having a “devastating impact” on disabled people.

Despite all of this, the legislation did not receive the warranted level of Parliamentary scrutiny, being “fast-tracked” through Parliament and receiving Royal Assent just four working days after its first reading.

The pandemic has hit Britain at a time when human rights were already being drastically undermined following 10 years of austerity. Policies such as severe cuts to local government budgets and the virtual destruction of legal aid have combined to create the perfect conditions for a raft of unlawful decisions made by public bodies over many years.

Following his visit to the UK two years before the coronavirus crisis in 2018, Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights commented that:

“great misery has also been inflicted unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalized, and on millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping”.

Last year, we met Shairaz Khan who, despite his learning difficulties, had been placed in substandard, rodent infested accommodation and without the care that he needed to clean and feed himself. Prior to our report, Ealing council were failing to meet their duties under the Care Act 2014, and many described a “crisis in social care”. This was before things went from bad to worse, with the Coronavirus Act suspending local government’s duties in social care.

We also reported, as part of our first series, on how children with Special and Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) are being forced to fight for their education. This was before the closure of schools to prevent the spread of the virus.

Arising from the pandemic, there are also important questions around the use of big data and automated decision making, with the use of an algorithm that appeared to discriminate against A-level students on the grounds of class and race leading to an embarrassing government U-turn following protests from students.

Meanwhile, ministers and activists are questioning how the personal health information of millions of NHS users might be used after it was handed over to the controversial artificial intelligence giant, Palantir, in the name of tracking the spread of COVID-19. But Palantir has a worrying track record including pioneering a policing software which has been accused of creating racist feedback loops. This, combined with a complete lack of transparency over the deal, creates a worrying picture.

All is not lost, though. Following the onset of the pandemic, civil society quickly galvanised. From successful legal action that resulted in disadvantaged children receiving free laptops or tablets so that they could partake in virtual learning, to the self-organising MutualAid groups that have connected millions of locals across the country, people have come together, helped one another and learned from one another in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

Alongside the voices of those who are disproportionately suffering during this pandemic, our new series will be profiling inspiring stories from civil society. We hope that people from many walks of life who are advocating on behalf of marginalised communities will be moved to look at ways in which they could be using human rights and the law as a tool in their mission.

This piece is part of our series The Unlawful State: Stories from a Pandemic where we lift up the voices of those whose lives are being disproportionately affected by the coronavirus crisis. We also find out what civil society are doing about it. Click here for more.

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